Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Tenino Stone: One of the big three Washington state building stones

Like many cities, Seattle can trace its use of building stone to fire. On June 6, 1889, John E. Back, described in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as “a thick-set blond of mediocre intelligence,” let his pot of glue boil over and onto the stove in a downtown, basement-level cabinet making shop. Acting eagerly but incorrectly, Back tossed water on the flames, which spread the fire to wood shavings on the floor. Soon the entire wooden structure was burning. Before Seattle’s Great Fire could be contained, it burned more than 115 acres and destroyed the downtown retail and industrial core. Within days the earnest little town vowed it would rebuild, but this time with a material that could better withstand fire—rock.

Two types of rock entered the city: sandstone and granite. A quarry in Index, 35 miles northeast of Seattle, supplied the salt-and-pepper granite. Sandstone came from three quarries. Bellingham quarries supplied the Chuckanut, while other quarry sites near Tenino, 12 miles southeast of Olympia, and Wilkeson, 15 miles east of Tacoma, provided rocks known by their locality name. The quarries succeeded because they combined proximity to water or rail transport with a homogeneous, well-cemented, low-porosity rock.

Despite the 125 miles separating the quarries, they share a related geologic history. The great beds of western Washington sandstone were deposited 40 to 50 million years ago in the Eocene Epoch when a subtropical climate dominated. Palm trees, swamp cypresses, and tree-sized ferns grew in the moist (40-100 inches of rain), bayou-like environment. The area that would become western Washington lacked the dramatic topography that now dominates. Instead, a broad, low-elevation coastal plain extended eastward into central Washington. Rivers and streams meandered toward a coastal lowland dotted with seasonal lakes, swamps, and lagoons. As the water spread toward the ocean, it deposited bed upon bed of sand, eventually building up several thousand feet of sandstone.

Recently, I toured the Tenino sandstone quarry, which reopened in the early 1990s, after being shut since 1938. It is now owned by Marenakos Rock Center, which sells split pieces for a variety of uses and also sells stone for restoration work.

The Tenino quarry, February, 2010.

Samuel Fenton and George Van Tine opened the town’s first quarry in 1889, after they had to spend the night near Tenino because they missed the last train to town. That quarry has become the town swimming pool. The present quarry, just west of town, opened in the early 1900s. Resident stone carver Keith Phillips showed me around the site.

Compared with some quarries I have seen in Indiana and Minnesota, the Tenino quarry is quite small—basically a 140-foot-high cliff face. As you can see from the photo, our warm, wet PNW climate has led to mosses and ferns growing on the former cutting planes. The low wall of dirt and debris in front of the quarry blocks the present cutting zone, where the front end loader sits. Just two men work the quarry, relying on machinery to do the dirty work of drilling channels, driving in the plug and feathers, and pounding the plugs. The drill is carbide tipped and spins and pounds to cut a channel about two inches wide. Each layer is bit under four feet deep. After quarrying the stone is shipped by truck to the Marenakos yard in Preston, Washington. In the old days, a train spur went directly into the quarry yard.

The quarry process. Hydraulic drilling machine, drilling bit, cut channel, inserted plug and feather splitting method.

The Tenino was used primarily in the northwest, including the east wing of the Washington state capitol, the old and beautiful, main branch of the Seattle Public Library (destroyed long ago), and the Bailey, or Broderick Building. Other non-local Tenino buildings include the Northern Pacific station in Missoula, Calvary Presbyterian in San Francisco, and the main high school in Stockton, California.

Bailey, or Broderick Building in Seattle, 1892.

The Tenino heyday did not last long and by the early 1910s, quarry owners turned to a different use of stone for their quarry. On February 17, 1912, they placed 43,100 pounds of black power and 1,200 pounds of 60% dynamite into two tunnel systems stretching hundreds of feet under the quarry. The “Big Blast,” as it was called, shot massive blocks hundreds of feet, covered the rail spur, and injured spectators. It also generated 500,000 tons of rock, much of it too fractured to use. Still enough good rock resulted from the blast for the Tenino quarry to supply up to 1,600 tons daily, but unfortunately World War I led to the cancellation of the contract and the quarry owners went bankrupt.

Tenino blocks come in two colors: an unoxidized blue, or dark grey, and an oxidized buff. Quarry owners discovered though that people didn’t like the heterogeneity and figured out that if they applied a phosphoric acid treatment, they could prevent the color from changing over time. The acid could help alter heterogeneity within the rock as well.

Stained (on the left) and unstained blocks of Tenino sandstone

My tour guide Keith Phillips has worked at the quarry for many years. He is a master stone carver and uses many tools from earlier generations of stone masons. His work is quite stunning and beautiful. His best known projects were for the Temple of Justice and lantern on the State Capitol, both in Olympia. If Keith is any indication, Tenino sandstone will continue to be one of the premier Washington state building stones. For more information on the Tenino quarries, there is an excellent article by geo-historian Dave Knoblach in the July 1999 issue of Washington Geology.

Some of Keith's work.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ontario, Canada: A Heritage in Stone

I recently received a very handsome book in the mail. It came from author and architectural conservationist Nina Perkins Chapple. The book is A Heritage of Stone: Buildings of the Niagara Peninsula, Fergus and Elora, Guelph, Region of Waterloo, Cambridge, Paris, Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough, Hamilton and St. Marys. In clear prose, Chapple describes the fascinating development of the stone architecture in southwestern Ontario in the nineteenth century.

Filled with excellent photographs, the book details 114 examples of stone buildings. They range from the simple Burlington Canal Lighhouse (1858) to the elaborate, Gothic Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (1876-1888); from the massive Galt Foundry and Machine Works (1875) to the one-story McDougall Cottage (1858); and from ashlar to cobblestone to rough hewn blocks. Each building includes information on the history, builder, and designer, along with an address.

Below is a sample of some of the buildings described in the book. They reveal once again how the underlying geology influences architecture and helps to create a local aesthetic. Chapple’s book makes me want to go this area to explore the amazing stone architecture, certainly some of the most diverse and intriguing that I have seen.

Paris, Ontario has an unusual legacy of houses built with cobblestones. The style was popular in nearby western New York from the 1830s to 1860s. According to Chapple, a cobble "can be held in the palm of a hand." Cobbles served no structural purpose and instead were used as a thin veneer. (photo from Ontario Architecture web site)

House of Heads (1858), carved out of limestone by English mason Matthew Bell. Bell built several homes for his children in the town of Guelph, including one of which may include a bust of Charles Dickens. (photo from Ontario Architecture web site)

John Brubacher house (1850), a classic Mennonite home making use of stones cleared from nearby fields. The split granite stones were not laid in courses. Dozens of such simple farmhouses still stand. (photo from Mennonite Historic Society of Ontario web site.)

Galt Post Office (1885) - High Victorian style - One of many structures built with local granite fieldstones, which glaciers had transported and deposited on the plains surrounding the area now designated as Cambridge. The former town of Galt is known as the "granite city."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Art Deco Stone

From McDonalds' bathrooms to Art Deco, the Morton Gneiss has a colorful history of use in architecture. I discovered this during my research for Stories in Stone, when I began to develop a list of buildings built with the 3.5-billion-year old, metamorphic rock. I was struck by the Morton's popularity in the 1930s and specifically in Art Deco or Moderne style projects, where the gneiss was an ideal stone. Several of the buildings later were honored with designation on the National Register of Historic Places.
Adler Planetarium, Chicago, built in 1930, designed by Ernst Grunsfeld, National Register Historic Places

Architectural historians debate the exact dates of Art Deco's popularity but basically the period between World War I and II was the heyday. The term comes from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industrials Modernes, held at Paris in 1925, and applies to "modern" buildings incorporating exotic motifs, often dramatic, colorful, and playful. Art Deco style design elements also appeared in many non-architectural forms, particularly in machinery and machines.
Oklahoma Natural Gas, now Noble Drilling, 1929, Tulsa, National Register Historic Places

Builders incorporated the Morton for several reasons. It fit the Art Deco aesthetic for unusual colors, particularly as a counterpoint to the light and monochromatic stone, such as Salem Limestone, often used above the base. (By highlighting the dark/light contrast, builders created an unconformity, or missing time gap in the stone record. In the case of the Morton-Salem contact, the missing time gap covers over three billion years, what geologists would refer to as great unconformity. One of the fun aspects of building geology, I think, is to find these artificial unconformities. If readers find others, perhaps they could let me know and I could post a list.)

The Morton’s swirled surface provided a natural counterpoint, as well as complement to the era’s prevailing fascination with machines, geometric patterns, and abstract organic forms. These shapes include Egyptian-stylized form, zig-zags, and chevrons, and are part of define Art Deco. The Morton's complex texture of light and dark bands typifies gneiss, a type of metamorphic rock formed from great heat and pressure. In the case of the Morton, the major period of metamorphism occurred when its parent rock rammed into the North American continent around 2.7 billion years ago.

Because of the Morton's color and texture, quarries sold it under trade names such as Oriental, Tapestry, Variegated, and Rainbow Granite. Some people also refer to the Morton as marble. It does have a marbled texture but is not a marble, which is also a metamorphic rock, but one that forms from limestone.

Dark gneiss also helped distinguish a building and set off the base from the surrounding city. Builders may have used the gneiss only at the base because the stone was harder to work, had to be transported long distances, and cost more. In addition, it was more resistant than limestone and sandstone to urban degradation, such as road salt, soot, and noxious vehicle emissions. Each of these factors contributed to builders using the Morton only at the most visible, public ground level.
Close up of Seattle Exchange Building, 1929

And, the Morton was simply an interesting stone to look at. It drew people's attention. It gave the building life; nothing about the Morton feels static or inert. It bestowed complexity; no two panels are the same. As I noted in my book, the dynamic nature of the Morton makes it the most living rock I have seen, quite a claim for what is probably the oldest rock that most people will ever encounter.

A Short List of Art Deco buildings with Morton Gneiss

Adler Planetarium, 1930, Chicago, (NRHS)

David Stott, 1929, Detroit, (NRHS)

Central Bank Trust, 1913, Cincinnati

Watts Building, 1930, Birmingham, (NRHS)

Mariner Tower, 1930, Milwaukee

Pythian Building, 1930, Tulsa

333 N. Michigan Bldg, 1928, Chicago,

Old State Library, 1938, Richmond, VA, (NRHS)

Wisconsin Gas Bldg, 1929, Milwaukee

Cincinnati Telephone Bldg, 1930, Cincinnati

Williamsburg Savings Bank, 1929, Brooklyn

Hartford Gas Co, Hartford, CT

Cincinnati Union Terminal, Cincinnati, 1933

Bankers Life Building, Des Moines, Iowa

Northwestern Bell Telephone (now Qwest), Minneapolis, MN, 1930

Originally the Bankers Life Insurance building, Des Moines, Iowa, built in 1939

David Stott building, Detroit, 1929, close up of entrance below, National Register Historic Places

Monday, February 8, 2010

Gneiss and McDonald's

I don't normally recommend that people go to McDonald's for anything beyond their bathrooms, but I would like to go against my normal impulses and will put in a plug for visiting the famed food pusher. Of course, I am not suggesting that one go eat; instead, go for the geology, for at the McDonald's in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, the counters are made of Morton Gneiss, a stone that I have previously noted as the oldest, commonly used building stone in world. The gneiss is 3.5-billion-years old and the quarries are about seven miles from Redwood Falls, in Morton.

I like to think that the employees are very proud and quite aware of the famous stone that graces their work place. Wouldn't you be that way?

No matter what, I would like to give a word of praise to McDonald's and whoever designed this building. They didn't have to honor the local geology and history but they did. Nice work on the gneiss!

Later this week, I will follow up with some additional observations about the Morton Gneiss and its use in Art Deco architecture.

The following shots are used courtesy of Jonathan Moore, who is a master's degree candidate in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sand: Michael Welland Responds!

Michael was also kind enough to respond to a few questions I posed to him about his book, Sand: The Never Ending Story. As you can tell, he is a careful and thoughtful writer.

And, in case you just happened in to this site, I am participating in Michael Welland's blog book tour. More info is available on his web site.

1. Throughout your book, you write of the many ways that people incorporate sand and its effects into their vocabulary. Why do you think sand is a particularly rich geologic feature for language?

My view is that this is because sand provides so many images and contrasts. First of all, I think that it’s very much about scale (and, of course, that’s what was captured by William Blake – “To see a world in a grain of sand”). An individual grain of sand gives us a reference to something incredibly small – but it’s something we can still see; anything smaller leads us into the world of the truly microscopic, invisible to the naked eye – a grain of sand is a kind of portal to the unimaginably small. At the same time, a vast accumulation of sand grains on a beach is a visibly accessible, but not countable, image of an unimaginably large number – anything larger is a severe test of our imaginations. Hence the continuing resonance of Sagan’s question as to whether there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on Earth’s beaches (a friend just sent me correspondence in the current issue of Astronomy magazine, continuing to debate this question).

Then I think that sand is compelling for its ephemerality – sand is constantly on the move, shape-shifting in your hand or sculpting landscapes. It provokes images of impermanence – sandcastles being washed away – and this is what makes land art, such as that of Jim Denevan’s beach sculptures, so fascinating, so somehow romantic. And yet, despite the advice not to build our houses on sand, we do – successfully. At the beach, sand is a material that flows through your fingers and yet you can walk on it. The wonders of granular materials!

And then there’s sand as the primeval and everlasting – not to mention mundane and ubiquitous – material. I was recently reminded of yet another saying, “pounding sand” – pointless labour or the related phrase of 19th Century American slang, “not enough sense to pound sand down a rathole.”

Finally, let’s not forget the hourglass and the sands of time. I started this rather lengthy response with Blake, and I’ll end it with Longfellow:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

2. You are obviously well read, which informs your work and makes it appealing on so many levels. Who inspires you? Are there fiction writers, science journalists, poets, sci/fi writers, etc. that have helped you become a better writer?

I’m afraid this is going to be a rather eclectic list! Any piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction, which you find hugely enjoyable is, by definition, a page-turner. There’s something about the structure, the style, the story-telling, that is compelling. And so it’s only after finishing it that you can reflect on why this was – and the answer is often elusive, intangible. But does something subconsciously “rub off”? I suspect so.

I’ll try to describe writing that I’ve found compelling – and inspiring – by genre, with an example or two for each (leaving a couple specifically for the next question). First, fiction. I admit that I’m a sucker for a good thriller/crime novel, and few books beat the Stieg Larsson trilogy (and I see that I’m not alone – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first in the trilogy is number 8 on Amazon and has 779 customer reviews). Also in this genre. Anything by Fred Vargas. There’s something about the pace and the extraordinary drawing of characters that these writers are simply brilliant at. I also enjoy periodically dipping into science fiction, in particular short stories – I think that the genre lends itself to this form and the challenge of the compactness of a short story is something any writer can learn from if it’s done well. A recent and much-enjoyed sampling has been The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction Volume 3 and I’m right now in the middle of When it Changed, a collection edited by Geoff Ryman. For other kinds of fiction, recently enjoyed have been Allegra Goodman’s Intuition (one of the few novels that superbly gets to the heart of how science and scientists work); read because I shared a radio program with her, Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul was astonishing – again, character and pace, and the all-important story-telling; Milan Kundera’s Immortality is one of the few books that I’ve read more than once – it’s actually time to read it again.

Travel writing, if done well, can be inspiring. Anything by William Dalrymple, Wilfred Thesiger is the classic; although I read it decades ago, William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways remains utterly memorable (Prairie Earth is on my – very crowded – “to read” shelf, and probably belongs in the answer to the following question).

Science writing: the classics – Feynman for the way he conveys the excitement and, of course Steve Gould. Phillip Ball; Jan Zalasiewitcz and The Earth After Us, Per Bak and How Nature Works. Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan (boy do we have a lot to learn from that book). Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist (How We Decide is on that crowded shelf). And, although I must admit that he’s an old friend (we were students together), I think Richard Fortey’s books (especially The Hidden Landscape, now being re-issued) are superb.

3. And along that same line. You make a number of references to non-geology writers and how they incorporate geology imagery in their writing. What can we geologists and science writers learn from how non-scientists use geology as metaphor?

I think that we as geologists automatically and professionally take, in the first instance, an analytical view of a landscape. We can learn a great deal from writers who observe the same view through different spectacles, and encourage us to stand back, dump the terminology and the reductionism, and look at these things with a sense of, for want of a better word, the romantic. And yes, the metaphorical. We can effectively learn from non-geologists that the same story can be told without the jargon and with a sense of wonder – isn’t this, after all, a key reason that we’re geologists in the first place?

John McPhee was one of the original masters, but for me there’s one recent book that illustrates this superbly and provocatively: Mountains of the Mind is Robert Macfarlane’s homage to mountains. He’s a Cambridge academic (the English faculty) and a climber. It’s often claimed that this is a book about climbing, but it certainly isn’t. Climbing is simply the route into wonderfully descriptive writing on rock and orogenic belts and the historical role of mountains in our imaginations (“the sublime”). His second book, The Wild Places, also contains some sublime geological writing -- for example, the miniature wild places to be found in the weathered fissures of a limestone pavement.

My second example arose in the conversation of your “virtual book tour” on my blog: Dan Snow, Listening to Stone. He’s arguably the finest dry stone wall builder in the US – and a superb writer. Here again, we’re looking at geology though a non-geologist’s eyes, but also his hands and his imagination. One of my favourite quatoations:

“The stones provoke the thoughts and the thoughts give birth to the form. A finished construction is a thought process petrified. Within a wall are all the moments that created it. They remain there like hidden messages slipped between the stones as they were placed. The finished wall’s character is defined by the spaces between the stones as much as it is by the stones themselves.”

If that doesn’t inspire a geologist writer, I have no idea what would.

4. You write “The underlying problem, which we shall return to, is that we have developed an unnatural desire to live in places we shouldn’t.” Any proscriptions for how we can address this fact, such as legislation prohibiting building in certain flood plains?

A couple of years ago, flying in to Philadelphia, I took this photo of the Jersey shore (no, I’m not singling out New Jersey, it just happens to be an appropriate photo). This is a barrier island, and barrier islands are among the most dynamic landforms on the planet; it is in their nature to move, to be over-washed by storms, to be broken up by new inlets as old ones sand up.

Every square metre is covered by development, the dunes, an integral part of the system, have gone, and the beach inevitably has to be “nourished.” This story is repeated around essentially all inhabited sandy coasts, and the population density in coastal areas is increasing dramatically. This kind of issue arises in the UK: the coast of East Anglia is eroding naturally – and extremely rapidly. One classic case involves an individual (sometimes referred to as today’s King Knut) who has recently lost, on appeal, a court case preventing him from continuing to dump hundreds of thousands of tons of soil on to the beach in front of his home (the details of the case are more complex – the cliffs are designated an area of Special Scientific Interest and it seems that the individual had not sought legal permission for his activities). The illustration below (from the Daily Mail) shows the situation – in the foreground is all that remains of this “coastal defence” and remnants can be seen as the grey piles at the foot of the cliffs.

The very idea of “coastal defences” strikes me as being, more often than not, nonsense – and the UK Government tends to agree, especially since it’s a very expensive nonsense that never lasts. Compensation and retreat seems to be a more sensible policy. Furthermore, interfere with one part of a coast and its sediment budget and the whole system is disrupted, invariably causing other problems further along the coast.

I know it’s easy for me to say, but I believe that legislation against coastal development, against development on flood plains, against disrupting natural drainage (by tarmac and concrete, for example), and against massive changes to natural river and sedimentation systems (look at the Mississippi Delta problems and the consequences for hurricane damage) is the only option. It would save immense amounts of money and human misery if we were simply to recognise that there are some natural processes that can’t – and shouldn’t – be screwed around with.

5. A technical question. Maybe I missed this in the book, but when I lived in southern Utah, I found it odd that in the land of red rocks, the sand on the beaches of the Colorado River is white, or at least not red. Why?

A couple of thoughts (although I’m no expert on the sandstones of the western US). Quite often, the red colour of a sandstone is only on the outside as a result of weathering and oxidation of its iron content – knock off a piece and the broken face may well be white or some other very different colour. Many of these sandstones are highly porous and permeable, and their internal colour reflects the chemical activity of groundwater seeping through and other aspects of diagenesis, the chemical changes that happen in a rock after it’s formed; the results can be highly variable.

The other point is that, while many sand grains are originally red (particularly desert sands and therefore sandstones such as the Navajo), that colour is only a rusty coating on the grains – bash them around for a while in a river and that coating will be worn off.

6. Of course, I have to ask this question. You mention several building stones made from sandstone. Do you have a favorite sandy building stone?

Definitely the New Red (Triassic) Sandstones on either side of the Atlantic (as in the Smithsonian). The colours are brilliant and their variations subtle, and the variety of sedimentary structures – ripple cross-bedding and so on – provide an instantaneous urban geological field trip. Here’s an example from a modern building near me in London (one of the blocks has been placed geologically upside-down).

But of course, on your side of the Atlantic it’s not just the Smithsonian – it’s the brownstones of New York made from “the most hideous stone ever quarried,” described so affectionately and eloquently in your book. And your Wingate red sandstone from Utah. [DBW here, As far as I know, the Wingate has not been used for buildings, at least in southern Utah, which seems a darned shame.] I need say no more other than simply urge readers to enjoy David’s chapter on this stone – if they haven’t already done so.

7. And finally, could you show a few images from your collection of the Ogden’s sand education cards?

With pleasure – when I first wrote a blog post about these last spring, I said that I would do more, so here’s a further sampling (ach with its accompanying description from the back).

One of my favourites

This next one seems to be a poor woman who has lost her golf ball in the sand!

A couple of commerce samples.

And, since we started with footsteps in the sands of time, so shall we end.

Sand: A Review of Michael Welland's Book

Today, I have the pleasure of participating in Michael Welland's blog book tour for the paperback edition of his book, Sand. Without further ado, here's the review of one fine book. And, very exciting news. Just learned that Sand has been awarded the 2010 John Burroughs Medal, the highest literary award for natural history writing. Way to go Michael. (Unfortunately, there web site is not as up to date as their choices of award winners.)

Sand. It’s everywhere. At the beach. In rivers. On mountains. In your shoes. In your ears. In your computer. Of course, sand benefits by its formation: sand is an ultimate outcome of that eternal battle between the physical world and the omnipresent agents of erosion. Someone with way too much time on his or her hands has even estimated that a billion grains of sand form every second on our little planet.

Recognizing the all-pervasiveness of sand, Archimedes postulated that the number of grains of sand in the universe was 1063 or ten to the sixty-third power. Who knows if he was right but consider that if you dumped out a cup of sand, and counted one grain per second, your task would require a little under 35 days. So, yes, sand could be everywhere, with some grains left over.

All the more reason to pen an ode to a material beloved not only by geologists, gravestone carvers, and computer chip developers but also Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Blake, Elizabeth Bishop, and Jimi Hendrix, each of whom utilized sand as a metaphor in their writing. Add to this list Michael Welland, who ferreted out the above facts in his treasure of a book, Sand: The Never Ending Story. The book is now available in paperback, published by University of California Press.

Unlike many single topic books, Sand follows a trajectory, moving from the microscopic to the macroscopic, from the individual grain to going beyond our planet and our present. Welland mixes in science, art, architecture, and literature. He traces a grain of sand on a quintessential adventure, from mountain to sea down via a river. He shows how sand affects every day objects from cement to glass to computer chips. It is heady stuff, but Welland writes with such passion and erudition that he makes his subjects accessible and fun to learn about.

Curiously, although many have written about the sand, no one definition exists. Size is a critical criteria, but by this definition alone salt and sugar are sand. Moreover, even defining sand by size raises questions as it can be as big as 2mm and as wee as .0625mm, plus how exactly does one measure an object where “one might see … a ruined Temple…[or] two images of human shape, kneeling and extending their arms to an Altar.” (Welland didn’t write the more flowery depiction; it comes from 18th century Dutch, arenophile’s Antony van Leeuwenhoek description of sand grains.) Or as Blake put it in his immortal phrase, “To see a world in a grain of sand.”

Welland follows his reference to Blake with a poem from another well-known bard, Robert W. Service. Apparently when not rhyming about the Yukon and cremation, Service carefully observed sand.

For look, Within the hollow hand,
While round the earth careens,
I hold a single grain of sand
And wonder what it means.
Ah! If I had the eyes to see,
And brain to understand,
I think Life’s mystery might be
Solved in this grain of sand.

In Sand, Michael Welland has done a wonderful job of fleshing out some of life’s mysteries, at least in relation to sand. We are also fortunate that he has taken Blake’s ode to heart and shared his experiences with us.

Portland Building Stones Talks

I know this is last minute, but I thought if there are readers of this blog in Portland, Oregon, they might be interested in two talks I am giving in town this week. Each talk will be PowerPoint shows focusing on work from my book Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology.

The first will be on Wednesday, February 3 at 3:30 P.M. at Portland State University. This talk is part of the geology department's Winter Term 2010 seminar series. I will be speaking at Cramer Hall, Room 17.

The second talk will be on Thursday, February 4 at 7:00 P.M. at the Architectural Heritage Center, 701 SE Grand Ave. This talk is $13 for non-members but if you consider how much fun you will have, I like to think it's worth it. If not, at least the money benefits a good organization.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Niagara Rocks and Building Stone

One of the pleasures of having a blog is corresponding with other people. Recently, Gerard Middleton, a retired sedimentologist who taught at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, sent me a note about his work with building stone. Five years ago or so, a group of conservationists working on the Thompson family mansion at Ontario’s Ruthven Park National Historic Site contacted Gerard about tracking down the source of the stone used in the mansion. Like myself, he was sucked into the stories in stone.

Imperial Bank in Niagara Falls Gasport Formation, aka Queenston Stone (from Niagara Falls Public Library)

“This [his research] proved so interesting that I began to study all of the stone in buildings within a day's drive from Hamilton, where I live,” he wrote to me. He now has an immense set of notes and photographs, part of which made it into a guidebook, he co-authored for a “Joint Assembly” of the Geological Association of Canada and the American Geophysical Union. Titled “Niagara Rocks, Building Stone, History and Wine,” the guide covers the region west of the Niagara River between lakes Ontario and Erie. Other authors are Nick Eyles, Nina Chapple, and Robert Watson.

Maplehurst mansion, red Grimsby Formation and Gasport Fm

As the title implies, the guide delves into many facets ranging from settlement of Empire Loyalists in the 1790s up the development of a flourishing wine industry beginning in the 1970s. It includes sections on masons, quarry owners, the Erie and Welland canals, and geology of Niagara Falls.

Post Office and Customs House, Queenston Stone, hard to tell but sadly the building is in very bad shape

Quarries began to be developed before 1820 with apparently some stone going into Toronto’s historic Gibraltar Point Lighthouse in 1806. Most of the quarries are in Upper Ordovician to Middle Silurian sedimentary rocks. These include the Eramosa Formation, a dolomite; the Whirlpool Formation, a white quartz sandstone; the Grimsby Sandstone; and the Gasport Formation, a crinoidal dolomitic limestone.

Although written for the joint meeting, the guidebook includes descriptions of many buildings that the field trip did not have time to visit. The stops take in a wide variety of structures, which unfortunately are not illustrated. (Logically, they figure that you can see the building right in front of you.) Fortunately, one can find a few photos on line illustrating the beautiful stone.

Like many guidebooks, it is clearly a labor of love as the authors point out their favorite sites, both geological and cultural along the way. I hope that Gerard continues to share his information with a larger audience.